Movie Reviews - 2013 postsTuesday May 27, 2014
Movie Review: Leninland (2013)
If people in an absurd situation realize they’re in an absurd situation, are they no longer absurd? Does the situation become tragic instead?
Moot point here, since no one in “Leninland,” a 53-minute documentary from Askold Kurov, thinks they’re in an absurd situation. They take it all very, very seriously.
In Gorki, Russia, where Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died, a museum to honor his legacy—as if he needed another one in the Soviet era—opened to the public in 1987. For the first three years, according to Natalya, a history teacher, it drew 3,000 visitors a week. Visitors fell off a bit in 1990. A year later, the U.S.S.R. was swallowed up by history. The museum still exists but now it draws 20 visitors a week—mostly Chinese tourists or field trips of Russian schoolchildren, who, when asked who Lenin was, guess the following:
- A leader
- A Russian
- A human
It’s a bit of a comedown from the days when Lenin was, in the Russian consciousness, a combination of Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse.
Lifeless in the death-mask room
On the plus side (for Lenin), he’s got Natalya and Evgenia, the bickering caretakers of the museum.
Evgenia is religious and sees Lenin in this light. He’s her opiate. Not her only one, either. She loves Jesus and Communism, too. You read that right: Jesus and communism. “The truth of the Lord was with the Bolsheviks,” she says at one point. “Great men do not die: they go to Heaven and keep working,” she says at another point. She says she’s at the museum as part of her spiritual journey. She could be from Portland or Seattle.
Natalya? She’s still a true believer: in Lenin, communism, and her way or the highway. You don’t mess. She overwhelms all of her opponents with words. We see her instructing a would-be tour guide at the museum not only on what he should say but on the proper way to point with his pen. When the town council talks up changing the museum from its Lenin-centric focus so that it might draw more tourists, she reminds everyone that Lenin is why the town is known. A beautiful red carpet used to adorn the Lenin “death mask” room, but it was taken for another, more important museum, and she laments its absence. “Now it’s just so lifeless in here,” she says of the death-mask room. You half expect her to say the rug really tied the room together.
Eventually she and Evgenia argue about spirituality versus matter/basic necessities. Their voices are calm but tense, as each strives to get in the last word and get her point-of-view understood. To be fair, as workplace arguments go, it beats Ginger vs. Mary Ann.
Throughout, I kept flashing back to that great line from George S. Patton in the George C. Scott movie: “Americans love a winner ... and will not tolerate a loser.” So with the Russians here. Lenin was the leader of a team that lost. He’s in the dustbin of history. He put Russia there. Why be reminded of that?
Or maybe it’s just franchise fatigue.
“Leninland” is a good doc: short, absurd, indicative of how far the country has come. In the end, a new museum director is appointed, and he’s got plans for the museum—Chinese stage shows, we learn, to bring in more Chinese tourists—but Natalya disputes them in front of everyone. Not smart. But he doesn’t go after her. Instead he points at Kurov and tells him to stop filming. The camera is dutifully lowered but continues recording. Then we hear the director telling him to delete the footage. “Stop and delete,” he says repeatedly. Obviously, Kurov doesn’t do this. He also says the following with the new director still nearby: “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.”
Movie Review: Muse of Fire (2013)
If this doesn’t kill documentaries starring the documentarian, nothing will.
The subject is a great one. Shakespeare: Why does he resonate? Why are we scared of him? Does he still matter? How is he taught and how is that a problem? What the hell is iambic pentameter anyway?
Most of the talking heads are great ones, too: Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Derek Jacobi, Brian Cox, John Hurt, Tom Hiddleston, Jude Law, Ewan McGregor. On and on. The missing link is Sir Kenneth Branagh, the finest Shakespeare interpreter I’ve heard.
And our guides for all of this? Dan Poole and Giles Terera, two out-of-work, late thirties British actors, children of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” who, four years ago, for reasons that remain vague, decided to make this documentary. They spend much of it telling us how difficult it was to make it. Dan, in particular, does this. He almost seems to resent us for watching. Other times he’s giddy and goofy. Does he think their bits together are good? Pissing in this field? Taking the piss out of each other? Eating fast food? When he was on screen, I kept flashing to that scene in “Annie Hall” when Alvy is forced to watch an unfunny stand-up comedy routine: “Look at him mincing around. Thinks he’s real cute, you want to throw up ...”
Their holy grail keeps changing. Oh, if only they could interview Sir Ian McKellen. Hey, they get him! Oh, Jude Law’s playing “Hamlet” in London but they can’t get tickets. Bugger. But wait, there’s a special show at Elsinore Castle in Denmark! And they get to interview him there! Hey, you know how both of us only got into Shakespeare, really understood him, when Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” was released in 1996? So imagine interviewing Baz, the Wizard of Baz, all the way in Hollywood, right? Guess what?
“We couldn’t believe it!”
That’s a line we keep hearing, as the thing they want to happen happens. Did they try to get other things to happen? Interview Leonardo DiCaprio about playing Romeo or Claire Danes on Juliet? Did they try to get Branagh? Why only talk up the successes? More, why were they successes? How did these two blokes, without even the dignity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, get to interview these famous folk? Did one lead to another lead to another? “Oh, you got Sir Derek? OK, then.”
Reading Shakespeare like Vonnegut
On the plus side, I kept thinking of my own experiences with Shakespeare.
We first read him in ninth grade, “Romeo and Juliet,” and then watched the Franco Zeffirelli version of the movie, during which all the boys fell in love with Olivia Hussey and all the girls fell in love with Michael York. I didn’t get that one. Weren’t they supposed to fall for Romeo? Tybalt’s an asshole; he’s the cause of much of the tragedy. I had so much to learn.
Shakespeare didn’t really take for me until college. We were reading “Othello,” Act 1, Scene 1, going through the motions of this passage:
Zounds, sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
Then the professor took over and read the passage with verve and left no doubt the meaning of tupping. “Ohhh,” I thought. By the time I arrived in Seattle in 1991 I was reading Shakespeare regularly. I remember turning pages of “King Lear” on lunch breaks as if it were as easy to read as Kurt Vonnegut. Later, when I worked in the warehouse at the University Book Store, and I got tired of listening to music on my walkman, I switched to BBC productions of Shakespeare: “Hamlet” starring Branagh and “King Lear” starring John Gielgud. That last was the one for me. Branagh was in this one, too, as Edmund, and I kept listening to his soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2: the “Why bastard? Wherefore base?” speech. He made it sound contemporary. He brought it to life.
That’s the key. Make it resonate. I believe it’s Steven Berkoff in the doc who says you should always put the actors in modern clothes. Update the setting to bring out the universal in the words.
Most of the American actors says Brits do Shakespeare better, but some Brits say Shakespeare and his contemporaries probably sounded more American. They also say that some of the best interpreters have been American: Brando in “Julius Caesar,” for example. Me, I thought of Dustin Hoffman as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” on Broadway, which my friend Dean and I were lucky enough to see in 1989.
At some point I expected clips—Brando, Leo, Ian McKellen’s great opening of “Richard III”—but I suppose they cost too much. You can watch them for free on YouTube but they cost too much for these guys to put in the doc. That’s a shame. But surely some Shakespeare movies are in the public domain? According to IMDb.com, more than 1200 versions of Shakespeare’s plays have been filmed in some manner, starting in 1898 with a short version of “Macbeth.” Couldn’t they have given us some of that history? Instead of another shot of Dan pissing in a field?
A few of their road trips are worth it. A British man, with great enthusiasm, teaches Shakespeare in prison, where lines such as Lady Macbeth’s “What’s done cannot be undone,” have a particular resonance. They go to Madrid to see a Spanish production of “Henry VIII,” where one of the actors professes amazement that Shakespeare could so perfectly delineate not just the modern woman but the modern Spanish woman.
Why Shakespeare? Judi Dench recites some lines, then, nodding her head, says, “Now if you’d written that, you’d be up all night looking at yourself in the mirror.”
“I don’t know any actor at the end of their career saying, 'What a waste of time all of that Shakespeare was,'” adds Ian McKellen.
Maybe Tom Hiddleston sums it up best: “He speaks to every man and every woman in every age in every time.”
I couldn’t agree more. I just wanted better guides.
Movie Review: Chinese Puzzle (2013)
“I have a problem with the ending,” the French publisher of French novelist Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), now living in New York, tells him at the end of “Chinese Puzzle.” “It’s a horrendously happy ending.”
So it is. The middle is a problem, too.
The French publisher, by the way, knows we all want to be happy in life but we want drama and tragedy in fiction. Maybe. What he should have said is that we want drama and tragedy when we read but we want happy, Hollywood endings when we watch. That feels true but is it true? And if so, why? One assumes readers are more intelligent than watchers. But many of us are both—readers and watchers—so do we want different things depending on the medium? I probably find myself pulling for that happy ending more often in movies, even though, intellectually, I know it would be wrong; even though I know it would make the movie less resonant.
But I wasn’t rooting for the happy ending here. I was with the French publisher. The two of us should’ve grabbed a drink afterwards and bitched about the film.
La vie, c’est compliqué
A Chinese puzzle tends to be a complicated and intriguing thing—how do the pieces fit together?—but “Chinese Puzzle” leaves out the intriguing. It tends toward the superficial and downright silly.
Remember that old joke playing off the Army’s slogan, “See the world, meet interesting people—and kill them”? I feel something similar about writer-director Cédric Klapisch’s Xavier trilogy (L’Auberge Espagnol,” “Russian Dolls,” this). Except it’s “See the world, meet beautiful people, and fuck them.”
A year ago, as the film starts, Xavier was happy and content and living with his British wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and their two kids, Lucas and Jade (Amin Djakliou and Clara Abbasi), in Paris. But then they drift apart. Xavier’s best friend, Isabelle (Cécille de France), a lesbian, wants a child with her Chinese-American lover Ju (Sandrine Holt), and asks Xavier to provide the sperm. He does. Wendy doesn’t like it. Or something. And anyway she meets an American during a business trip to New York. Then she moves there with the kids. So he moves there to be near the kids. But now he’s out of his element. It’s like Barcelona again except he’s 40.
In a way the problem with the movie is that it is constructed like a Chinese puzzle: here’s this piece, and this piece, and this piece. Here’s this problem, and this problem, and this problem. They all build out but don’t construct much.
Once he moves to New York, he needs a place to live. Ju helps with that, but then he needs a job on a tourist visa. A fellow divorced dad helps with that (bike messenger), and we see him on that bike. Once. Then it’s forgotten. We also see him bartend. Once. Is that how he’s making a living? Isn’t he selling books in Paris? He’s a semi-successful novelist there, isn’t he? Or does he merely have the “small but loyal following” of a T.S. Garp?
For custody and immigration issues, he needs a lawyer, and gets a schlubby Jewish guy (Jason Kravitz), who suggests marrying an American. Guess what? Because he saves his Chinese cab driver from a pummeling, the driver’s nice-looking niece agrees to help. Mazel tov! But the INS ain’t buying it, and spends more man-hours questioning him and her than the CIA did in tracking bin Laden. Then there’s Isabelle. Yes, the baby is born, and that leads to the babysitter, a pretty young Belgian thing (Flore Bonaventura), which leads to an affair. It’s like Garp again but without the guilt. Is this when I began to lose interest? When I saw more beautiful French lesbians naked on the screen? The French are really stuck on that. So to speak. They don’t resolve it, either. Everyone works to shield Ju from Isabelle’s infidelity even as the severe INS officers arrive in the cramped third-floor walkup above the Chinese laundry to double-check on Xavier’s marriage. Life is so crazy!
The movie had promise, too. Early on, Xavier contemplates the difficulty of life going wrong, and mentions that, for an atheist like himself, this means falling back on the German philosophers. So they show up periodically—like Humphrey Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam.” There’s Schopenhauer on his bed dispensing advice. Later, in America, he imagines Hegel telling him, “All nothingness is the nothing of something,” which both Xavier and I liked. And then? Rien. C’est tout. Bummer. I was hoping to learn something. But like everything else in “Chinese Puzzle,” it starts and stops. It begins and goes nowhere.
C’est la vie
Life is messy—that’s the point of the movie—but this is a pretty neat version of messy. You get to be a trim, handsome Frenchman, your New York is both gritty and safe, and your fallback position is Martine (Audrey Tautou). Who’s near 40 now so apparently no one wants her anymore. C’est la vie.
“C’est la vie” used to mean, “Well, life kinda sucks; get used to it.” Here, la vie, c’est compliqué, mais extraordinaire. C’est hereux.
How happy is the ending? How Hollywood is it? Klapisch actually has Xavier run through the streets of New York to stop the girl from leaving. So they can all stay together and be happy together. And in the end they walk in one of New York’s many parades, and Xavier, with Martine by his side, exchanges greetings with the older Chinese dancer he sees every day in the park, whose own story means nothing; and whose appearance here is just another superficial, meaningless piece of the puzzle.
Movie Review: Enough Said (2013)
She should have told them sooner. Not for them; for us.
Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a middle-aged masseuse in southern California, who, as the movie opens, has to endure, silently and in light-comedic fashion, her clients’ foibles: one woman gabs nonstop, an elderly man has bad breath, a young, fit man lives at the top of a long set of stairs but never bothers to offer a hand with her heavy massage table. She says nothing about any of this. Instead, she gives us the Elaine Benes tics and mannerisms: some combination of endurance for their foibles followed by “am I bad person?” regret for what she’s thinking of their foibles. It’s not bad but it did remind me of “Seinfeld.” As did the masseuse thing. As did ... More later.
Early on, Eva attends a party with her friends Sarah and Will (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone), a couple forever squabbling about petty things, and there she meets both a new customer, Marianne (Catherine Keener), who apparently makes a living as a poet (the question that nobody asked that I’d ask? “How?”); and Albert (James Gandolfini), a sweet guy, who, like Eva, has an upfront-but-through-the-back-door kind of sense of humor. They connect in this manner. That’s the interesting thing about Eva: She tends to—as Elaine Benes would’ve said— blah all the time; yet it’s not talking, not being upfront, that gets her into trouble.
Despite not being attracted to Albert—he’s fat (stocky) and bald (bald-ing)—she goes out with him. And they hit it off. He’s funny, she’s funny. They talk like old friends. They talk, to be honest, a bit like George and Jerry on “Seinfeld”: about nothing and everything. At one point, Albert, who works at a museum of television history, bitches about one of those “Real Housewives” shows, and Eva agrees:
Eva: No brains, and the fake cheekbones, and the fake boobs. [Pause] Do you like fake boobs?
Albert: [surprised] No. No, I like real boobs.
Eva: Yeah. [Pause] I got real boobs.
Albert: That’s workin’ out for us then.
I liked them together. I liked him. He’s got a twinkle in his eyes and a gentleness in his spirit. He’s also the grown-up in the room. He’s got an acceptance of the foibles of the world, including, maybe especially, his own.
Marianne? The poet? Who is now Eva’s friend? Unaccepting. Her ex, for example, was also overweight, and he did awful things that drove her nuts. He liked guacamole, for example, but didn’t like the onions in the guacamole; so he used to put his chip in and swirl the guac until the onions were safely off to the side. Drove her nuts.
Guess what? Albert does the same thing! Guess what? Albert is Marianne’s ex.
Up to this point I liked the movie. It was trying to be an interesting story about people like us: people whose bathroom mirrors have dried toothpaste spittle on them. Even at this moment, during this reveal, I thought, “Well, that’s an interesting coincidence. Let’s see what happens when she tells them.”
Except she never does. And that’s what the movie becomes: not telling them. Either one of them. She takes Marianne’s intolerance of her ex into her relationship with Albert and tries to change him. She brings up his lack of bedside tables, his many brands of mouthwash, his ... stockiness. She says she’s going to buy him a calorie book. “Why’d I get the feeling I just spent the evening with my ex-wife?” he says at one point.
Eva realizes the Albert/Marianne connection halfway through the movie but we’re near the end before she’s forced, by circumstances, to own up to it. But by this point, she’s already blown it with Albert. Not to mention us.
“I don’t like any of these people,” Patricia said near the end.
I liked Albert. I also liked Peter, Eva’s ex, played by Toby Huss, who looked immediately familiar to me. He should, he’s been in everything from “Jerry Maguire” to “42,” but I recognized him as Jack, Elaine’s twinkly-eyed boyfriend who turns out to be the B-actor playing “the Wiz” in the schlocky east-coast commercial “Nobody beats the Wiz!” on “Seinfeld.” Peter is another adult in the room.
Isn’t it interesting how the men are the adults? I’ve noticed this more and more in stories created by women, “Girls” particularly, where Adam and Ray are relatively stable dudes, while the girls of the title go off on tangents and on each other. “Enough Said” was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener (“Please Give,” “Friends with Money,” “Lovely & Amazing”), but the women in it are fairly awful. Marianne is carping and bland; she seems like she’s floating in an ether of nothing. Her daughter, Tess (Eve Hewson), is spoiled and rude. Eva is just small. Only Eva’s daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway), is worth a damn.
Lessons are learned, I suppose, but they’re lessons we know. Eva learns she should speak her mind more. She asks the young massage client at the top of the stairs to help her with her table, and he does, apologizing profusely all the way. So that works. She tries to reconnect with Albert. The ending of the movie is the picture on the poster: the two of them sitting on his back steps, maybe together, maybe not. It’s an ambivalent ending for a movie that still feels all tied up in a neat bow.
Movie Review: The Past (2013)
In Asghar Farhadi’s “Le passé” (“The Past”), we often see the thing before knowing what the thing means.
So a pretty woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), greets a man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), arriving at the airport, with a smile and a wave, but he’s not her lover; he’s her estranged husband returning to sign the divorce papers. So her lover, Samir (Tahar Rahim of “Un Prophete”), lies in bed while she administers eyedrops to him. The next day, in by-the-way fashion, we discover he’s allergic to all the paint scattered around the house. So the oldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is distant and uncommunicative with her mother. The story behind that, with its many twists and turns, takes most of the movie to tell.
We first see the thing, in other words, then we find out its past.
This is a beautiful movie, by the way. There are small, exquisite scenes. It all seems so simple. I kept wondering, “Why can’t other filmmakers make scenes that feel this real, this straightforward, this interesting?”
I’m thinking of an early scene. Ahmad arrives and expects to get a hotel room, but Marie is putting him up at her place. Is he thinking they’ll sleep together? One last time? But he finds out she’s living with a guy. Samir. He’s dropped into a situation. As are we.
There are two kids playing in her small yard: a boy and a girl. You expect them to squeal with delight when they see Ahmad but it takes a moment before the girl, Léa (Jeanne Justin), even realizes who he is; and even then the boy, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), just squints, frowns, doesn’t get it. But he doesn’t like it. This new man helps blowdry his mother’s hair? That seems ... wrong. (To us, too.) He has to move bedrooms to accommodate him? Fouad does so petulantly, dragging his blankets and pillows around, saying “What a pain.” Ahmad is gentle with him, though. He talks to him. By now we know Ahmad is not the boy’s father but it’s not until Fouad drags his pillow and blankets back downstairs and knocks over the paintcan in the hallway, and Marie blows up, chasing him around, that we find out she’s not his mother, either. “You’re not my mother!” he shouts. Then she leaves for work at a pharmacy and Ahmad is left to clean up both messes: the physical and the metaphoric. He does so with calm and grace. He gives the boy the one thing he doesn’t have: power and control. “Is it because I’m here?” he asks, about the acting out. “Do you want me to leave?” he asks. There’s a pause. Then Fouad quietly shakes his head.
That the small, exquisite scene I was thinking of.
The movie keeps doing this. There’s a moment, halfway through, with Samir and Marie in their car. Tensions have risen in the home, and between them, because, you know, her ex is staying with them. They kind of look alike, too, Samir and Ahmad. At least Lucie points this out to Ahmad. Does Samir wonder about it? In the car, stuck in traffic, they’re silent. Samir is driving, manual, then finds Marie’s hand on his on the stick. A conciliatory gesture? He looks at their hands together, then over at Marie, but she has her eyes closed as if in reverie. Is she thinking of Samir ... or Ahmad? Or is she just tired? But he shakes her hand off, which startles her awake. Now she wonders: Is he angry?
It’s a small, everyday scene, but so much is suggested by it.
Revelations keep coming. What happened to Fouad’s mother? Turns out she’s in a coma. For much of the movie, Ahmad is like a gentle detective of the heart, trying to figure out why Lucie, who is not his child, (none of them are), is estranged from Marie. It’s like peeling an onion. One answer just leads to another, deeper answer.
First Lucie says she doesn’t like “that jerk,” Samir. Then she admits it’s more about her mother: Men stay for a few years, then leave, and Lucie is tired of it. Ahmad is implicated here, too. Then Lucie admits it’s the affair: her mother had an affair with Samir, and afterwards Samir’s wife tried to kill herself, and that’s why she’s in a coma. They caused it. With their affair. Awful stuff. Or did they? Samir doesn’t think so. He runs a dry cleaner, and five days before the suicide attempt his wife had a meltdown with a customer. The attempted suicide had nothing to do with him and Marie. His wife didn’t even know about it.
Except she did. Because Lucie told her. That’s the awful secret Lucie’s been carrying. That’s why she’s been distant. She can’t bear her own culpability.
In this way we keep getting deeper into the past until it threatens the stability of the present. Or is it merely clearing the way for the present? Or both?
The last third of the movie belongs to Samir, who begins his own detective work of the heart. Lucie called his wife at the dry cleaner’s the day before her suicide? But his wife wasn’t at the dry cleaner’s the day before her suicide. So is Lucie lying? Or is there another explanation?
Near the end, we get talk about letting go of the past, living in the present, yadda yadda. A lesser movie would’ve gone in this direction. It would’ve given us this wish-fulfillment fantasy, this correct way of being, this problem solved. Not here. Here, Samir visits his comatose wife, bringing along her perfumes and his cologne in a last-ditch effort to revive her. He’s heard the olfactory memory is our longest-lasting—Proust was right about that—and he wants to test it. But nothing happens. And we see him walking away from the room, and down the hallway, and away from the past.
A lesser movie would’ve ended there.
But Samir stops, turns, pauses. A better movie might’ve ended there: man forever caught between past and present, like Antoine Doinel at the shore.
Instead, Farhadi (“A Separation”) has Samir walk back into the room. He tries once more with the cologne. “If you can hear me,” he tells his wife, “squeeze my hand.” Then the camera pans to his hand in her open hand. We’re watching, waiting, for any movement. But there isn’t any. That’s it.
And that’s the best ending of all for “The Past.” A man being held, and not, by something that’s dead, and isn’t.